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Monday, April 6, 2009      

Missile launch for dummies; Given the economy who besides Japan really cares?

By Donald Kirk

SEOUL — Call it a success or failure, North Korea's launch on Sunday of a long-range missile, supposedly carrying a satellite that failed to go into orbit, demonstrates conclusively Pyongyang's ability to deliver a warhead to a distant target.   

In that sense, the latest version of the Taepodong-2 accomplished what North Korea had wanted — and also bore out United States, Japanese and South Korean charges of violating United Nations resolutions adopted in 2006 when the North entered the ranks of the nuclear powers by testing a small warhead.

The UN Security Council this time is not about to enforce the previous resolutions, much less adopt a meaningless statement of "condemnation". The council, after three hours of closed-door palaver on Sunday, failed to agree to anything after calls for restraint by both China and Russia, North Korea's only friends and one-time Korean War allies.

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Amid clear signs that those two would veto any resolution, the UN debate rested on the legality of the launch as a violation of the resolutions of 2006. "It's really not a violation," said Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group, citing North Korea's adherence to the Outer Space treaty.

The failure of the satellite, however, suggested that North Korean engineers had fabricated a dummy satellite as a cover-up for a test of the Taepodong-2. The suspicion was that North Korea hoodwinked the world by fixing the dummy to the missile for the benefit of all those eyes-in-the-sky relaying images as "proof" that the launch was for space exploration.

At the same time, the launch marks a significant step toward delivering a warhead as far as Alaska, Hawaii or the U.S. west coast. Now, as South Korean media reported, it's clear Taepodong-2 can travel at least 3,000 kilometers — and the next time around may prove its ability to go as much as twice that distance.

For now, the U.S. North American Aerospace Command in Colorado said the launch was "not a threat to North America". Nor did any debris fall over Japan after the first stage fell into the waters between North Korea and Japan before flying over Japan and then over and finally into the Pacific. Real or dummy, the satellite is assumed to have fallen into the Pacific Ocean, along with the second stage of the booster rocket.

South Korea's government was clearly relieved by reports of the failure of the so-called "satellite" to go into orbit after having denounced the exercise as a "serious offense" that jeopardized peace in Northeast Asia. Word of the failure came as a North Korean announcer was shouting out the news that the "satellite" was in orbit, happily conducting scientific experiments and broadcasting patriotic songs of praise for North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il, and his father, Kim Il-Sung, the country's "eternal president" who died in 1994.

The failure was all too reminiscent of the failure of Taepodong-1, launched on August 31, 1998, on a similar trajectory over Japan. For days, North Korean broadcasts said Taepodong-1 had launched a satellite, broadcasting paeans to Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-Sung. North Korea never acknowledged the failure but stopped making the claims some time later after space analysts worldwide said there was no sign the missile had gone into orbit.

Pinkston, of the International Crisis Group, sees the upcoming session of the Supreme People's Assembly, North Korea's rubberstamp parliament, convening on Thursday, as a vital indicator. "We'll see if Kim Jong-Il appears."

Kim Tae-Woo believes that Kim Jong-Il may still be able to preside over the opening session, as his "health is good enough to control the government".

If he manages to show up, Kim Jong-Il's appearance at the assembly will inevitably be seen as confirmation of a triumph that will strengthen his grip on the country while he considers a successor, probably one of his three sons.

Paik Hak-Soon, senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, agrees with others in doubting if the UN Security Council can adopt any resolutions that will strengthen those already in effect since 2006.

For North Korea, said Paik, "this missile launch will be used as an opportunity to engage in talks" with the U.S. In the end, analysts believe North Korea may insist on diplomatic relations with Washington while bypassing the South.

Lee Chang-Chong, a retired South Korean ambassador, wonders how long the world, including South Koreans, will really care about the launch or the subsequent debate.

"It's the same demonstration conducted by Kim Jong-Il several years ago," said Lee. "What I want to know is what is America going to do. The Obama administration is in a mess in the wake of financial crisis."

Lee believes South Koreans also are more worried about economic issues than the North Korean missile. "It's very strange," he said. "We're indifferent to what's going on."

In contrast, he said, "Japan is in a panic, but here people have been enjoying peace ever since the Korean War [in the early 1950s] and people are very optimistic that North Koreans are not going to invade the South again."

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